Home Field Advantage: A Conversation with Kit Robinson
Marks on paper/Are all that matter/To a person lost/To the world (“Marks on Paper”). Or, at least, so Kit Robinson writes. I’m inclined to agree. Where else do those of us—feeling that reality does not represent them so well as the representation embodying the feeling they have of reality—turn to find voice and community? The internet has only proven this with the rise of social media (that “mark on paper” being anything online, page that that is). But Robinson isn’t saying just that in his most recent collection, Thought Balloon (available from Roof Books, 2019).
There’s also this: Language is a form of agreement (“In Medias Res”). Which it is a verification of that other world in which we all, inevitably, reside. Writing bears many promises. And Robinson’s has always promised to engage the reader. From his earliest published poems, including “The Dolch Stanzas,” (available online through Whale Cloth Press), to today, Kit has consistently presented fresh and, often, witty, approaches and experiments, primarily as poems, to readers. The stasis (from the Greek for standing/stopping; suggesting that inability to change the message, or a buy-in to audience demands for cohesive similarity) here is only that his work is always in flux.
What is not new, though still uniquely and convincingly expressed, in Thought Balloon, are certain themes: environment, politics, the philosophy (and ethics) of writing. I am taken by a possible description of a sort of routine that reveals a living structured around writing, when in “The Morning Line,” he writes You get up/To take up/The line.” As he’ll mention below, Kit writes in the morning. Many criticize such autobiographical index, but here I’m fascinated by the production of the poems across the board. How, I wonder, did someone think all of this?
On the edge/Of all thinking (“Hologram”) he must be. After all, he persuades you with such a clarity and pleasing simpleness in diction, and just as often entangles you in reading and rereading such poems as “Excerpts from A Manual of Style" and “Last Things First.” The latter is structured in a fairly straightforward way, each line of each stanza beginning respectively “Last/Things/First,” all the while giving to a variable range of empathetic responses. Why is it the Last blast of cold air ? the Last song on the airwaves? The answer can be as banal as it can be chilling. Multiplicate readings here transcend the linguistic; their input is emotional. There is always the currency of the urgent situation we reside in, accepted and interrogated. “Transbluency” finds that the poem is A belt of ekphrastic energy circumnavigating the Earth/The Planet we are made of. It’s a logical sentiment to see the inverse of the mainstream thinking which finds the world is ours to take from which leads us further and further into climate crisis. It’s not all bad, though. First base, who’s on?/First time I ever saw your face.
Reread now, amid the backdrop of our own influx of pandemic thinking, the book remains fresh, and Robinson has gone on to publish the poem “Love in the Time of Covid-19,” as well as at work on an aptly titled set, “Quarantina,” some of which appears in this issue of Cold Mountain Review. These newest works only confirm the continuing inquiry at hand.
Thom Young: Thought Balloon reads often as a clear, didactic text. Not a condescending lecture, but one pure in its description. "Deception Pass," "Silhouette," these are imminently coherent, bearing a different potency than the at times automatized incoherency of the early work I first knew you for (like “The Dolch Stanzas”). It feels that your work has been building towards this new mode. You know, many readers met you through language writing. I'm thinking also of Democracy Boulevard, especially "The Person," which is dedicated to Hejinian—still writing in that linguistic mode—or the poem "Messianic Trees," published in the late 90s. We grew to expect our role was constructing the lesson from the field of your work. Perhaps it is an unfair assumption many of us make, taking the tenets of language too far as gospel, which exaggerates this as a "new clarity," but I suspect political, philosophical motivation. Where does this new clarity come from?
Kit Robinson: From its outset I see my writing as engaging language in both its transparent and opaque modalities. My early work, The Dolch Stanzas, was written using the 200-word Dolch sight word list when I was working as a teacher’s aide in a fourth-grade classroom. My aim was to find out
what kinds of things could be said within a limited vocabulary. Some of the poems sound pretty straightforward: I was just / thinking you should / do right // because that guy / in the yellow car // is a cop. Others are more elliptical: the old eye can read / anything at all with / one little old yellow look.
I’ve always had a good ear for the rhythms of common parlance and been attracted to poetry that works in plain speech. That’s partly why I was drawn to the work of the New York poets. I liked the easy-going way they talked in their poems, and the Poetry Project scene also provided a model for how to organize a writing community around mimeo mags, readings, and fun.
TY: Can you speak a bit about language writing? Admittedly, the term turns more on readerly needs
than a fitting explanation of the writers’ qualities, lumping together writers based on common reading experience (often, the immense work the reader does to enter the text) but not necessarily cohesive stylistic similarity, but it has become a zeitgeist of its own. As someone who left the school behind, when so many others remain within it, I’m fascinated by the way experimentation begets growth, and—paradoxically—further experimentation.
KR: My experience in the so-called language school was formative. Unlike a school of fish, these were writers of many stripes who brought a wide variety of personal styles and approaches to their works. I think it was this contrast, this not-knowing how or why someone would write like that, that attracted us to one another in the first place. It was certainly not some theory-based poetics. That kind of thing did emerge, but I would argue it was never foundational.
What did spur innovation was an intense, sometimes competitive, often collaborative drive to experimentation. My most experimental book, Windows (Whale Cloth, 1985), illustrates the extremes to which I went to foreground the materiality of language, albeit with inevitable slivers of translucence throughout. Aside from its radical formalism, Windows is also an account of the life of times.
I never did leave the language school, but I did go on to other things, other contexts that informed and shaped my writing. One was a thirty-odd year career in the tech industry. Full time employment reduced the time I had for writing, a powerful constraint that permitted only the most urgent impulses. Too, the language of the workplace supplied new vocabularies to play with. By extracting fragments of business and technical language from their utilitarian contexts and floating them free within an aesthetic field, I was able to flip-flop the transparency/opacity duality. Once at a reading in New York, a contingent of my workmates cracked up to hear industry-speak let loose like that.
Another big influence was my long-standing friendship with poet Ted Greenwald. Ted’s down-to-earth style and take-no-prisoners ethic taught me a lot. Initial cap on every line, for example: always start over.
TY: As with many writers—maybe I should say artists—writing is not the sole domain wherein lies
your interest. Music and visual art as well play a large role in your career, both in and outside
poetry. The interplay of your exterior and your poetic lives suggests a certain desirable
KR: In the past fifteen years my creative output has expanded from writing to music and from poetry to art writing. The latter came about quite unexpectedly last year when the director of Open Space, an online project of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, commissioned me to write a column on topics of my own choosing. I enjoy turning the skills I honed as a professional writer in the tech industry toward subjects I love, namely the arts. You can read my column here:
In the early oughts, I took up music again after a long hiatus. Inspired by the Buena Vista Social Club, I began a study of Cuban music that connected me to a thriving Bay Area Latin music scene, took me to Havana, and led to playing in bands. The history of Cuban music inspired me to investigate the decima form, which came from the medieval Spanish trovatore tradition and informed the coro and pregon vocal arrangements of modern salsa. I began to see my poems as forms of address that took on a more open, public, oratorical style. Perhaps this is what you sense when you talk about a “new clarity.”
TY: How do political concerns figure into your work?
KR: My political awakening came in the late sixties when I became a student radical at Yale. I participated in actions in support of university custodial and dining hall workers, as well as Black Panther Party members on trial in New Haven for the murder of an FBI informant. The war in Viet Nam was a life changer. I managed to avoid the draft by being underweight for my height. The alienation of those times lasted a long time. I didn’t hold a regular full-time job until twelve years after graduation. My poetry grew out of a revolt against bourgeois values and a downwardly mobile, bohemian lifestyle. A deep distrust of the establishment sped me into alternative ways of thinking and making, where one could exercise one’s freedom on one’s own terms.
TY: Environmental themes are more apparent and direct in your recent work than in the past. For example, “Crow Valley,” Thought Balloon’s first poem, historicizes its ecological concern with the line This kind of rhyming goes back to the cave. What senses do you detect driving these changes?
KR: During the writing of Thought Balloon, September 2015 - October 2018, I was especially conscious of climate change due to a four-year winter drought that produced a run of increasingly bad fire seasons in California. Environmental issues pop up throughout the book, sometimes as references to the climate per se, more often as awareness of the environment of the poem, whether physical, temporal, temperamental, or associative. In "Crow Valley” I see an attempt to locate the voice of the poem within various dimensions and fields, one of which is “the cave,” i.e., pre-history.
If environmental themes are more apparent lately, it’s because we are in a global crisis marked by habitat loss, species extinction, mass migration, fascist politics, and now the pandemic, which was probably caused by wildlife trading and certainly made worse by Trump. Since March, I’ve been writing a set of poems called “Quarantina.” It’s a kind of journal of the plague year with titles like “Weird New World,” “Pandemic Rhapsody” (included in this issue of CMR ), “It,” “Gut Feeling,” and “Love in a Time of COVID-19.”
TY: The play between titles “False Bay” and “Deception Pass” fascinates me. The two seem to suggest a disruptive tension between human society and the way we see nature, not to mention the natural itself. The latter, especially, suggests human foolishness. Is this a philosophical maneuver on your end, demonstrative of how you view actual society?
KR: False Bay and Deception Pass are actual places on San Juan Island and Whidbey Island respectively. I suppose I was drawn to both names by their sense of misdirection. The poem “False Bay” is a playful celebration of the freedom inherent in language — substitutions, dislocations, and odd pairings. I wrote it in a motel bathroom with a terrible headache, yet it communicates, at least to my mind, a wonderful spirit of liberation. “Deception Pass” is more straightforward, two biographical snapshots bookended by a pastoral scene. The men depicted were noteworthy white settlers on the western frontier, one highly successful, the other not.
TY: Later poems, like “Earth Sense,” express another, more positive side, of that thinking. You write This command and control environment/is made for tv/not for you and me/we are otherwise. This can be taken as a limitation of your audience around a particular ideology. Maybe this goes back to the enmeshed language school with which you were earlier associated, and the strong, cult-like readership that school holds. Do you feel—at this point in your career—that you know who your readers are? Has that changed your writing process?
KR: The “made for TV command and control environment” is the false picture foisted on us by the powers that be, King Trump and his banana republicans with their “toxic fantasies.” The positive side is the continuous, borderless, microtonal, transnational flow / Otherwise known as reality. I have never thought about limiting my audience around any particular ideology, nor have I ever written for a cult audience. I write what I write, and if someone likes it, great. I do not know who my readers are, other than a few friends and colleagues, nor have such considerations changed my writing process. I’m just grateful to have found editors, publishers, and readers who have responded to my work and allowed me to keep writing.
TY: How has where you've made your home influenced your writing?
KR: When I arrived in San Francisco in 1971, with no plans and no clue that I might end up here for good, I was drawn to both the city’s awesome physical environment and its history of progressive politics. In the late 70s I moved with my family to the East Bay, where I settled into working life. I became a fan of the Golden State Warriors and the Oakland A’s and came to identify with the diverse, working-class ethos of the East Bay.
Over the years I’ve absorbed and been absorbed by succeeded waves of change — gay liberation, counterculture, and recession in the 70s, the tech boom and concomitant rise of poverty since the 80s, and new forms of social networking and resistance in this century, along with surging fire danger from climate change. All this has penetrated and suffused my writing, so that now I sometimes see my work classified under “California,” which is okay with me. My papers were recently acquired by the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, which houses the archives of such Bay Area masters as Jack Spicer, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, and Joanne Kyger. Good company, to say the least.
TY: There’s a distinctive arc across your work. I am reminded a bit of James Merrill, who moved so differently across his career, though I see little similarity beyond your shared fluidity, a willingness to change form, style, and nature with comfort and assurance. There is the vein of writing akin to Frost, even to Wanda Coleman or Diane Wakoski, wherein the stylistics become a matter of comfort to the poet. I don't feel that in your work, which is part of my deeper interest in it that led me to reach out in the first place. One could transit from "Dolch Stanzas" to "The Messianic Trees" to "False Bay" and meet delightfully variable terrains.
KR: The “variable terrains” of my poetry reflect the variable contours of my life and thought. I’m sure there is a consistent thread running through it all — how could there not be? — but I’m not interested in "building a brand.” I’d rather explore the unknown, and if someone thinks that looks obscure, it’s ok with me, but that is not my intent. In other words, I’m not trying to hide anything. Rather I prefer to step out into space and find out what’s there.
TY: How does humor find its way into your work? One of your “Ice Cubes” poems reads entirely a / skeleton / walks / into // a / bar / orders / a // beer / and / a / mop. It’s rare to see such straight-forward delivery.
KR: That poem is in my book Determination and is part of my “Ice Cubes” series. It comes from a joke I heard or read somewhere, an abrupt one-liner. Humor is as essential to poetry as it is to life. Without it, I just glaze over.
TY: You were scheduled to make remarks at the New Orleans Poetry Festival in April of this year (cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic). While unable to give them publicly, in them, you say, Changes in our natural environment extend to changes in the environment of human society, which is to say, language. I'm one to think along similar lines, that language is an environmental factor of human society, at least in the way we use it. As we lose languages, as we lose culture, how do you see poetry being impacted, and, what is the nature of this writerly call-to-arms?
KR: We’re sitting here watching the polar ice caps melt, coastal areas flood, and tropical rainforests turn to desert. At the same time, there’s a rapid die-off of indigenous languages and an incredible shrinking of linguistic standards to sound-bytes and tweets. Both changes are rooted in entropic breakdown as environmental structures dissolve from difference into sameness. Authoritarian propaganda and corporate marketing drive language toward homogeneity. Poetry can stimulate resistance by performing difference. We can promote diversity of content, diversity of style, diversity of thought, diversity of imagination. As poets, we can help each other, and the world, resist homogeneity and combat entropy.
TY: You suggest that language emerges from environment, or that the two are tethered. What are the implications of that connection in an urban environment and a rural one?
KR: That’s a good question, one I haven’t considered in just that way. I’m an urban poet, no doubt. My whole life I’ve only lived in cities, and my literary roots are definitely cosmopolitan. I listen a lot when I write, not only for voices in my head, but also to the immediate environment. My poems are frequently lined with jet noise, traffic, and train horns (I live near the tracks). I do have rural bloodlines though. My father grew up on a farm in Northern Illinois, and my mother’s grandfather was a dairy farmer in Devon, England. My wife lived on a communal settlement in the mountains when we met, and that family has now extended to a third generation of close companions, some still in the mountains, others in the Bay Area. I love nature and feel most at ease in the natural world. I’ve written a lot of pastoral poems during trips to the countryside.
The industrialization of agriculture has changed rural life for the worse. Small farmers can’t make a go of it. Small towns are emptying out. Deforestation and dams deplete the fishing stock. Jobs are in short supply. Speed and opioids are rampant. But the rural landscape still provides plenty of grist for poetry, both scenic and social, including country speech.
My favorite poet of the American interior is Merrill Gilfillan. An accomplished naturalist and birder, Merrill spent years driving around the plains states and recording his encounters with people, places, flora, and fauna in stories and poems with a perfect eye for detail and a flawless ear for American talk. Now he lives in your neck of the woods, in Asheville.
TY: I'm curious as to how you compose a poem.
KR: For some time now my writing process has been pretty consistent. I sit down in the morning for one hour or sixty lines, whichever comes first. The rules are you don’t have to write but you can’t do anything else. Often there are periods of sitting and waiting for the next line. What comes up goes in.
TY: “Misterioso,” appearing in Thought Balloon, carries the lines You represent a strand of life / Trailing back to the Pleistocene / No one knows the future / Everything always ends up otherwise. The poem ends on a note of hopelessness, or, rather, futility within the academic establishment: A team of research scientists / Can't explain. I want to avoid calling this pessimistic, and instead suggest it is realistic. How do you see the conflict between hope and pragmatism in our meeting the anthropocene?
KR: When I write poetry, it’s not like I’m trying to say something. It’s more like things happen and I allow them to do so. I don’t always know what they mean. That’s certainly the case with “Misterioso.” I wouldn’t describe it as pessimistic, maybe more skeptical. The team of research scientists seems to come from somewhere else, something you’d read in the paper. I’m not anti-science, far from it, but I do believe there are limits to what science can explain. The fact that human life on earth traces back to the pre-human and that the future is unknowable lends an aura of mystery to the present moment. Hence the title, taken from a song by my favorite composer, Thelonious Monk.
I don’t see a conflict between hope and pragmatism. I think both are necessary, hope so we can get out of bed in the morning and pragmatism so we can take care of each other and collaborate to make change and plan for a better future.
TY: “Ontological Acoustics” calls a poem a kind of bark / stripped from a tree, on which to depart. I'm caught up in the environmental violence depicted here. There seems to be an indication that the poem takes from the world, though we so often say, or hear, that the poem gives new entrance to the life around us. Recently, I've been concerned that the real thing (the tree, the canyon, the fish, the rhinoceros) is forgotten behind the simulated image of that thing: the real versus the made. Bark belongs on a tree, only stripped away for human exploitation. What is it about the tension between existence and description that catches your attention?
KR: Bark may be a real thing, but so is the word, bark. Probably my first take was the bark of a dog, that is, a phatic expression meant to open or prolong communication. Then naturally the tree popped up. I can see how stripping off bark could be seen as an act of violence against nature. I hadn’t thought of it that way, so thanks for pointing that out. The third bark is a ship, spelled barque, on which to depart, in other words, embark. All this punning is a lot of fun and does not involve the wrongful exploitation of the real. Rather it breaks up the adhesions that form between words and things, which tend to distort reality. The tension between the real and the symbolic is definitely something that makes poetry go.